Climate Adaptation Is an Art of Survival

5. May 2023

CRC 1265 Project leader Ignacio Farías in conversation with Brenda Strohmaier

Cities and city dwellers not only contribute significantly to global warming, but they are also particularly affected by it. Using Stuttgart and the Japanese city of Fukuoka as examples, subproject C05 investigates how this very knowledge reaches the work of scientists, urban planners and politicians, and how it is being translated into concrete measures. Project leader Ignacio Farías, Professor of Urban Anthropology at Humboldt University, explains how a social science analysis serves survival in a broken world. 

Brenda Strohmaier: Why did you choose Stuttgart?

Ignacio Farías: Stuttgart is very interesting to analyze in terms of how meteorological and climatological concepts come into urban planning. The city began working with meteorologists very early on. As early as the 1930s, at the beginning of the Second World War, a small department was set up in the city’s planning department. The first assignment was to investigate the possibility of creating artificial fog to cover Stuttgart. The goal was to understand how the city could be veiled in smoke in order to protect it from the bombs of the Allied Forces. It was then that people began to realize that a city does not only consist of streets and buildings, but also a special ecosystem in which wind and temperature play a major role.

BS: I would have thought that Stuttgart’s pioneering role in climate policy had to do with the fact that the city is located in a valley where smog tends to build up.

IF: The two things go together. Stuttgart is very humid and relatively warm by German standards. When air and smog stop flowing, because of the valley location, it becomes particularly problematic. After the war, the first issue was the local climate. Walter Hoß, an architect who headed the committee for the reconstruction of the city, introduced the idea of climate planning, according to which certain areas of the city must remain unobstructed for the circulation of the wind. As early as the 1960s, roads were expanded to create such wind tunnels.

In 1976, the first United Nations Habitat Conference was held in Vancouver to discuss how to manage urban growth. Stuttgart contributed a documentary film in which the city explained its ecological approach[1]. It received a great deal of attention, and since then Stuttgart has been an important location where urban climatological knowledge is brought into urban planning.

A 3D model of the “kettle” (der Kessel): The city center of Stuttgart is the lowest point and the hottest spot in summer (© Indrawan Prabaharyaka).

BS: This makes Stuttgart a pioneer in global urban climate policy?

IF: Research into the urban climate, still called microclimate at the beginning of the 20th century, was strongly promoted at German universities, for example in Munich. This is a long and complex history that we are in the process of reconstructing. It was landscape ecologists, for example, who developed the concept of a climatope in the 1960s. A climatope is the smallest spatial unit in which a homogeneous climate is assumed to prevail. In the 1980s, climate researchers adopted the term and adapted it for urban space. The question was: How can the city be understood as a mosaic of different climatopes? Eventually, mapping began in the Ruhr region, where very specific urban climatopes are located.

BS: How does climate knowledge then become climate policy?

IF: Stuttgart has set an example in this regard. In 1992, the “Nachbarschaftsverband Stuttgart” – an association of stakeholders from the city of Stuttgart and neighboring municipalities – developed a climate atlas that maps and characterizes the urban region according to different climatopes, following the example of the Ruhr region. The climate atlas serves as an input for the land use plan. It consists of so-called “Planungshinweiskarten” (planning reference maps). The references define the framework conditions for urban development and also contain critical comments on the current land use plans of the municipalities. Climate atlases have existed before, for large climatic regions. In Stuttgart, however, the principle was applied to a city for the first time. New climatopes were also identified, such as the runway climatope, which is reminiscent of the spatial figure of the trajectorial space. Since then, many cities around the world have developed climate atlases based on this example, varying in what they measure and describe and how precisely.

BS: And the concept also caught on in Fukuoka?

IF: Yes, German and Japanese urban climatologists have been closely cooperating since the 1990s. In the preliminary research for our project, I came across Japanese climatologists who described the Climate Atlas as “a kind of Western feng shui”, trying to translate the idea of the atlas into an Asian way of thinking about space.

BS: What else makes Fukuoka a pioneering city?

IF: Fukuoka is one of the first cities in Japan to focus intensively on climate adaptation. The city is located in southwestern Japan by the sea, the climate is subtropical and humid with many hot days. Temperatures there have risen even more than in the rest of the country in recent decades. Fukuoka is also the only city in Japan that is really growing, with a lot of construction going on. So, it’s a good place to look at climate policy. We are mainly interested in conceptual development, that is, in questions that go beyond concrete cities. We just want to know how specific problematizations of heat in the city come about.

BS: What exactly do you mean by “problematization of heat”?

IF: Problematizing means defining a vague problem in more precise terms in order to take certain measures. In the case of Fukuoka, it’s very interesting because everything revolves around a certain term called “kaiteki kankyou”, which we translate as “environmental comfort”. There are always discussions in the city about how to design public spaces so that people feel comfortable in terms of temperature. In Germany, on the other hand, there is much more discussion about how to reduce heat stress, which is the stress that occurs not only during heat waves, but also during normal hot weather, and which is particularly hard on the body.

Iconic microclimate infrastructure: The ACROS (© Kenta Mabuchi)

BS: And how does spatial theory help you in your research?

IF: First of all, our research is specifically about analyzing the spatial concepts and the connected urban planning projects of climate researchers and urban planners in relation to the question of the underlying spatial figures. For example, there are attempts to map space on a much smaller scale than the previous climatopes, to find out how climatic conditions change every ten or fifteen meters, depending on the location, the position of the sun, the façade, the road surface. In a second step, we will actually see to what extent these spatial figures fit with the spatial figures of the CRC.

BS: What kind of refiguration, that is, what kind of socio-spatial change is specifically relevant to you?

IF: Our main concern is how the idea of an urban climate is changing. At the end of the 19th century, people noticed that cities were warmer than their surroundings, that they formed heat islands. In the 1920s, that became a big talking point. Then came the next huge step, which was to think of the city not just as an island, but as an archipelago of many small islands, some of which are warmer than others under certain conditions. The very profound refiguration is to think of the city and urban planning on the basis of such problematizations as ecological space, where ecotopes, biotopes, climatopes are the relevant entities that define what is possible and how and where. This is a huge refiguration that goes hand in hand with a whole new politics.

BS: And what does that look like?

IF: There are countless concrete measures, including shade infrastructures and greening strategies. We are interested in the techno-political processes by which the elusive phenomenon of global warming is translated into concrete measures. The result of these translations is what we call “urban microclimate regimes”. They are what we study and reflect on.

BS: And no one has ever done that?

IF: Of course there is a lot of research on climate protection and adaptation in cities. But a cultural analysis of these processes, especially in relation to spatial imagination and construction of the future, is still missing. I can explain what I mean with two examples from Madrid. They are currently planting an urban forest there to create a green belt around the city in the next 50 years. So we are talking about a distant future, a future that most of Madrid’s inhabitants will not live to see. At the same time, this future is within our grasp. The trees that will cool the whole city in 50 or 100 years are being planted today. This creates a continuum between today and that distant future. Second, the architects have transformed a street, one of the typical treeless stone deserts of Madrid, into an “eco-boulevard”. They built three structures there that they call trees. They’re metal structures that resemble gasometers and have plants growing inside them. They not only provide shade, but also make the air a little more humid. Heat is here considered an extremely local phenomenon. So, unlike the urban forest, it’s not about counteracting citywide warming. Nor is it about a distant future. As soon as these trees are planted, they have an impact. They immediately solve a very local problem, for the people who live in that neighborhood. The vision was that this solution would be replicated until the entire city was filled with these artificial trees. This project has since been scrapped, but I’m describing it because it shows, especially in contrast to the urban forest, how different the ideas and infrastructures are that are being developed to refigure urban spaces as climate-resilient spaces.

BS: And the very large spatial reference here is the rescue of the globe?

IF: Of course it is important to reduce the impact of urban spaces on global warming. But that’s not the only concern. The majority of humanity lives in cities. And for them, it’s above all about being able to survive, somehow, in a broken and partly irreparable world. Climate adaptation therefore is a form of survivalism.

Author information

Prof. Dr. Ignacio Farías is Professor of Urban Anthropology at Humboldt University Berlin and heads the CRC 1265 subproject C05 “Urban Microclimate Planning Regimes”.

Dr. Brenda Strohmaier is a journalist, urban sociologist, and freelance curator at the Berlin educational institution Urania.